National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 5, 1981-1982

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Click figure 4 here for an enlarged image

Musical Iconography and Sketches 
in the National Gallery:
Street Musicians by Lillian Freiman and
Orchestra Sketch by Pegi Nicol

by Francine Sarrasin

Pages  1  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  

Orchestra Sketch

by Pegi Nicol

Margaret Kathleen Nicol (Pegi Nicol) was born at Listowel, Ontario on 17 January 1904. She studied with Franklin Brownell in Ottawa, then at the École des Beaux-Arts in Montreal. A landscape entitled The Log Run won her a first prize in painting in 1931. She moved to New York City in 1937 with her husband Norman MacLeod, who obtained work there as an engineer. She returned to Canada every summer, however, to teach at the University of New-Brunswick, where she also founded an art centre. In addition, she belonged to a number of art associations. She died prematurely in February 1949, at the age of forty-five.

Musical inspiration does not have the resonance of a true leitmotiv in the work of Pegi Nicol. The theme of music belongs more rightfully to the large series of profoundly alive subjects typical of her work; the artist's creative energies are expressed equally well through pictures of children's games, street scenes, or musicians playing - for it is life itself that she is trying to set to paper. Music is therefore but a happy pretext for an interpretation of life selected by the artist. Support for this statement can be found in observations made on the subjects dealt with in her work and in experts' commentaries. (7) The active presence of Pegi Nicol and her continual work within contemporary artistic movements (8) enable us to situate her efforts in a context of complete accord with the artistic trends of her times. We feel that her consciousness in the art world justifies an analysis of some influences and tendencies. Although we do not wish to linger excessively over historical data, we cannot ignore the impact of the interdisciplinary trend that had its heyday in the twenties.

The work we shall examine is neither titled nor dated. It is one of a series of four Orchestra Sketches (fig. 4) by Pegi Nicol, that portray the same portion of an orchestra. Is it perhaps Carnegie Hall, which so inspired her compatriot and professional colleague, Lillian Freiman? The two Canadian artists settled in New York around the same time, and it is not difficult to imagine them seeing each other there, especially since they knew each other from student days in Montreal. It is entirely possible that they both were given access to orchestra rehearsals. It certainly appears that the viewpoint chosen by Pegi Nicol for her drawings is, if not that of another musician, at least an unusually close one. (9) Thus we are led to consider the work by itself, to discover whatever graphic and musical combinations there may be, and to delve deeper into the tale it may have to tell.

It might be worthwhile to pause to consider our first, overall impression before proceeding with a detailed analysis of the composition. This spontaneous first reaction does in fact play a certain role in the appreciation of the work. There is something in this drawing: a hint of expressionism. Nicol's touch might even be said to contain contrasts as violent as those of German woodcuts; for is it not split by extended, almost straight diagonals? If does not, of course, express the explosive tension of the proponents of Expressionism - the right cheek of the flutist in our drawing is perhaps excessively extended, but he is far from Munch's The Scream.

The expressionism of Pegi Nicol is immediate and seemingly without hidden intention. Accuracy might be wanting in the musicians features and postures, and the spatial organization may contradict that of a true orchestra, but this is because it is expression that is prized, even to the detriment of resemblance. We see a study of mimics that is not in the least exaggerated. The choice of wind instruments as initial pretext for the picture focuses attention on the mouth. But how can the lower part of a face communicate as clearly and vividly as the eyes' piercing gaze? Can an instrument, in its own way, compensate for this lack of communication? It must be recognized that the mouth here is only a means by which to capture the viewer's attention and focus it on the moment of blowing. The blowing is animated by a fundamental energy directly associated with life itself. Wind instruments act as extensions of the human voice and of the entire person - throat, thorax, chest, and mouth.

Orchestra Sketch is presented in the form of a portrait. Its physical organization draws the eye of the viewer along vertically and, following the tradition of portraiture, it is placed within an upright rectangle. Paradoxically, neither the people nor the instruments in this portrait appear to be really important: there are no looks or eyes, and there is a head in an imposing, central position - with its back to us! All the evidence points to a denial of strict portraiture, and it may be presumed that it is the action of blowing that is the focus. It is the moment of sound that we see swirling around the figures in the drawing.

By examining various motifs used by the artist, we hope to delve deeper into the emphasis given to the instant of blowing and in so doing come to appreciate the scope and importance accorded to music itself.

Access to the work is facilitated visually by the placement of the flutist. The position of his shoulder allows a good enough view of the central area in the lower part of the drawing that one can follow the score along with him! Once again the viewer feels captivated by the image, involved almost despite himself . He feels as if he had surreptitiously stepped into the scene, enticed by the solid outlines of the flutist. This gentleman is quite securely positioned, resting his elbow against the very edge of the paper. Just as the sound of the flute is completely distinct from the heavier and more sober music produced by the other instruments in the orchestra, so our flutist stands out from his plastic environment by being so strongly drawn, with such liberal use of black. Even the colouring - discreet though it is - seems to have been reserved for him. The beige-brown tints of his hair tend to be diluted when applied to other motifs.

Of all orchestral instruments, the flute and piccolo are highest in pitch. There is some discrepancy between the playing of a flute in real life and its representation by Pegi Nicol, who has the flute pointing downward. Similarly, if this instrument always produces its melody in a high register, why is the drawing of the flutist so heavily done? After all, he takes up the lower three-quarters of the picture. Only the reality of music can counteract this paradox. The presence of the flute in the foreground brings it closer to the viewer and almost accords it a solo role. The flute and its music, image and sound, become detached from the rest of the scene.

Next Page | flutist's left hand

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